Zahra Elham knew the odds were stacked against her.
After 13 seasons, “Afghan Star” — a televised singing competition reminiscent of “American Idol” — had produced 13 winners — all men.
But as viewers cast their votes this year, the young singer advanced round after round until the grand finale. And then she took home the show’s top prize, becoming the first woman to win since the show launched in 2005.
“I popped the hearts of men out of their chests today,” she told the audience after she was named the winner on Thursday evening. “Today, I represent all the girls of Afghanistan. Today, not only Zahra Elham but all the girls in Afghanistan have won.”
Among Elham’s competitors this year was Abdul Salam Maftoon, a Justin Trudeau look-alike who hoped his uncanny resemblance to the Canadian prime minister would win him fans.
“People like to take pictures with me; the media come for interviews with me, and they call me Afghan Justin Trudeau,” he told CNN. “I feel very happy about that.”
Zulala Hashemi became the first woman to make it to the show’s final round in 2017, but that year a man, Sayed Jamal Mubarez, won the top prize.
But despite the odds this year, Elham’s high-pitched voice and calm demeanor apparently won over Afghan viewers — both men and women.
The competition has had a long and complicated history in Afghanistan, where it reflects some of the country’s most obvious friction: a younger generation’s excitement over a popular TV show and conservative religious leaders who disapprove of it.
Muslim clerics have railed against the show and tried to disrupt its auditions. In 2017, Abdul Basit Khalili, a religious scholar, told The Washington Post that “Afghan Star” “seduces the youth and pushes the country into a deeper crisis.”
“We want programs that teach science and technology, not ones that deviate them from the right track,” he said.
In 2012, winner Navid Forogh was nearly killed after unknown gunmen ambushed him near his home in Kabul. In 2016, militants killed seven of the TV station’s staff in a suicide attack on a minibus.
Roya Saberzada, a 21-year-old Afghan women’s rights activist, told The Washington Post by phone from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif that Elham faced discrimination throughout this season of “Afghan Star,” including insulting comments on her social media pages. Some viewers mocked what they perceived as a nasally sound to her voice. “But she never gave up,” Saberzada said.
“Life is very hard for women. It’s even hard for you to go and talk without any fear and freely on the streets,” she said. “Imagine what it would be like if you could go and sing in front of the media and all those people could watch you without any judgment?”
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Elham said that her family largely supported her path to stardom. “My father and mother were always encouraging me to become a singer,” she said. “My mother encouraged me more than anyone, she encouraged me so much."
She said her role models included Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Aryana Sayeed, a female singer who has faced threats from Afghan clerics over her clothing choices. Reuters reported this month that Sayeed, who recently performed on “Afghan Star,” travels in an armored vehicle in Afghanistan out of fear for her safety. But she hasn’t stopped performing, even appearing without a headscarf on the televised show.
For observers like Saberzada, Elham’s win offers a glimmer of hope about the progress Afghanistan has made on women’s rights, as some have raised alarm that peace talks between the United States and the Taliban could eventually erode that progress.
Saberzada is of a different camp. “I don’t think people would give up and give the ground to the Taliban,” she said. “I believe the peace negotiation won’t get to any point until the Taliban accept that women should live freely.”
She sees Elham as an embodiment of that freedom.
Her win “paves the way for other women to not feel that they won’t win,” Saberzada said. “It encourages them to follow her way.”
Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that Sayed Jamal Mubarez was the first member of the Hazara ethnic group to win Afghan Star.